Giving Design Advice

In an ideal work environment software designers freely ask for and offer constructive criticism and openly discuss issues. They don’t take criticism as personal affronts, and they and their managers make intelligent, informed decisions.

OK, so how do design discussions play out where you work? In my latest IEEE Software design column I discuss some effective ways to give advice as well as hurdles you may have to overcome before your advice is heeded. Being an effective critic, advisor, and design colleague isn’t purely a matter of being on top of your technical game. Cognitive biases affect how people naturally (and often illogically) receive and process information. They can have a big impact on how you your advice is received and interpreted. If you want to get better at communicating suggestions to others, you should become more aware of these biases and look for ways to mitigate or avoid them. Wikipedia has a good overview of cognitive biases in how people assess risk, make decisions, and rationalize them after the fact.

To whet your appetite for this topic I’ll mention one bias that has probably bitten every programmer at least once. A confirmation bias is when a person looks for what confirms a strongly held belief while ignoring or undervaluing contradictory evidence. Have you ever found yourself unable to isolate a software bug because you insisted that your software just couldn’t work that way? Your confirmation bias might have prevented you from noticing facts that would lead you more swiftly to identifying the bug’s root cause. I like the idea presented in Debugging by Thinking by Robert Charles Metzger that taking on the different mindset of a detective, mathematician, safety expert, psychologist (one of my personal favorites), computer scientist or engineer you can get a better slant on tracking down a bug. According to the author, “Each way has an analogy, a set of assumptions that forms a worldview, and a set of techniques associated with it.” In designing as well as debugging, having a variety of worldviews for tackling a problem helps you avoid getting stuck in a rutand pick the right strategy based on the context. One way to get around a confirmation bias is to shake yourself out of the normal way of doing business.

Cognitive biases aren’t good or bad. They just are. And if you work with others it helps if you can identify biases that lead you (or others) to jump to conclusions, hold onto an idea when it should probably be discarded, or ignore risks. That knowledge can help you tune your message and become aware of and avoid bias traps.